Friday, December 3, 2010

Graduate Student of the Month: Francisco Parada

Francisco Parada
Neuroscience and Psychology
December 2010

If you were to visit Francisco Parada in the Imaging Research Facility lab, you wouldn’t see his desk at first. Instead, you’d see scattered papers, a computer, water bottles, balloons from his birthday a few weeks ago, and musical instruments propped underneath. Compared to the other students in the lab, it’s a little messy, and he’s the first to admit it. But sit down and speak with Parada about his research and it’s clear that he not only knows how to pull information buried in piles on his desk, but also pull information hidden within our brains.

Neuroscience Doctoral Student Francisco Parada
Parada is currently a graduate student in Neuroscience and Psychology in Dr. Aina Puce’s lab, but he didn’t start out wanting to become a scientist.

“For most of my life, I was a musician more than a scientist. I started studying music when I was fifteen in Chile, and I spent more than ten years there doing music,” he said. At his Dad’s request, Parada switched gears to study psychology at the university when he was eighteen but continued a 'double life' until he was twenty one. Psychology in Chile is similar to psychology here in the 1950's or 1970s, Parada said, where researchers are debating if it should be considered a science or not; because the focus is mainly clinical and based on psychoanalysis.

“It didn’t hold my attention, but it also wasn’t interfering with my career as a musician so I kept doing it. Eventually I got to my first neuroscience class -- and it was a milestone.”

His enthusiasm for neuroscience led him to a spot as a teaching assistant for a neuroscience class one hour a week. After two years, the department gave him his own section of the class to teach.

“I was really excited about neuroscience and science in general, but in Chile, it seemed like a dream, that it wasn’t possible for me. The science groups in Chile are really small and why would they pick me when there are kids who were working on this stuff from early on and I had a late interest in this. So I gave it a shot and decided to apply to a MA degree in Chile. Just to see how it goes. Since I was a musician already, I wasn’t worried about stability,” he said.

The scientific community in the MA program was good for Parada. He spent a lot of time in the lab and that’s where he discovered electroencephalography (EEG), a method of measuring brain waves by putting electrodes on the skin to measure brain activity.

Electroencephalography (EEG) equipment
“It’s an older technique,” he said, “but it was mind blowing. You can use it to measure the brain directly and associate brain activity with cognitive processes.”

Parada knew that if he wanted to continue to work in neuroscience he would eventually have to leave Chile and start a Ph.D. program in the U.S. or Europe. Because of his experience with the EEG, he eventually connected with Dr. Tom Busey at IU, who offered him a position in his lab as a manager working with undergraduates completing honors theses. Parada also worked with Dr. Busey and his collaborators to develop an open source eye tracking system, another method to measure gaze activity in the brain. With Dr. Busey's support, Parada became a doctoral student at IU.

Developing an open source eye tracker is a huge break through, Parada said. “Usually the cheapest one is maybe $60,000, which is a lot. The principle itself is not that complicated, in the sense that it uses math to calculate where you’re looking with good accuracy.” Parada and Busey's version requires two cameras and the eye tracking program, which can be downloaded from the internet (, all of which Parada estimates might cost around $300 shopping online.

Currently Parada is collaborating with a graduate student in the Art Department who doesn’t have the money to buy an eye tracker, but who would like to collect data from subjects to figure out what parts of his artwork are most attractive in the hope this will help improve his artwork. Open source also means eye trackers could be used in schools, sports, and other educational settings in ways that have been cost-prohibitive before.

What really blows the mind, however, is what Parada is working on now.

With the help of Dr. Busey, he wrote routines that allow two opposing methods to work together to create eye-tracker-guided-EEG. This allows a researcher to measure brain waves while a person is engaged in self-paced, everyday activities, which is not how it's always been.

“These techniques do not play well together,” said Dr. Puce,. his adviser, “they are like putting a cat and a dog in a bag together. It’s groundbreaking work.”

The EEG connects a hat made from linked together electrodes - it looks like high tech chain mail - with a machine to boost the tiny electric signals coming from the brain, and feeds them into a computer.

“When you measure brain waves from the outside (like with an EEG), because the waves are so small, the skin, skull, and liquid around the brain filters out the waves. Eyes are like batteries. Move your eyes and you send electric waves all over skull and they wash out your data. In EEG, the first thing you tell a subject is to hold still and don’t move your eyes. This leads to really boring tasks,” Parada said.

“What I did was combine the EEG with the eye tracker, which introduces a lot of noise to the brainwaves measured by the EEG. Then we figured out a way to remove the electric signal of the eye movement from the EEG data in order to recover the brainwave data. It’s a method that allows you to do more naturalistic stuff,” he said.

For example, Parada is collaborating with a graduate student at the Stone Age Institute studying stone tool making in hominids and early humans. Making stone tools requires fast decision making (and lots of eye movement) because the subject must hit one stone with another stone in precise movements.

Parada performing with his band
“Using an MRI to scan the brain has been used for this kind of research, but is too slow for the kind of question that the Stone Age Institute group is asking; but the EEG is fast, it can do the job. You can look at data with resolution of milliseconds,” Parada said. “Using the new analytical method, we should be able to connect the subject to an EEG and an eye tracker, have the subject make a tool and see brain waves in real time, while doing real tasks. Theoretically this should work; it currently works in the computer. The next step is getting it to work in the real world.”

Parada may have had a non-traditional route to neuroscience, and he still writes music for a 5-piece N├╝jazz/Zeuhl combo (, but he thinks he might have found his place in science.

“I wasn't the nerd in the class or the guy with the best grades, but science is perhaps the best place for someone like me. I can be unorganized, or work odd hours, but if I get things done and I innovate, I'm might do a good job as a scientist after all. It’s a perfect fit for me.”

Media Contact: Erika Lee, Director of Communications, The University Graduate School,

The Graduate and Professional Student Organization and the University Graduate School would like to congratulate Francisco Parada on receiving the GPSO/UGS Recognition Award. Students selected for this award were nominated by a faculty member from within their department, and selected by the GPSO and UGS for excellence in their graduate studies at Indiana University.